Reese Witherspoon in This Means War

Romantic comedy sticks to the script

Reese Witherspoon in <i>This Means War</i>
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Hostilities are declared in This Means War as two workmates compete for the affection of the same woman. The contested objective is Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a product tester who decides to apply comparative-shopping techniques to dating. Her would-be beaus, FDR (Chris Pine) and Tuck (Tom Hardy), are best friends who sit across from each other at work. The hook is that their desks are in the sCIA's Los Angeles field office—and that the boys will put the agency's entire arsenal to work in their pursuit.

Tuck has a seven-year-old son and an ex-wife and is now shy in love; FDR is a Don Juan who knows every club doorman in town and finds more than his match in Lauren, who doesn't mind telling him when he's grossly overestimating the effect of the twinkle in his eye.

The cocky presumption of charm that isn't actually there is precisely the problem with action-comedy This Means War. The movie acts like it has an audience eating out of its hand, but it does nothing surprising or delightful to actually seduce that audience.

All's fair in love and war: Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
All's fair in love and war: Chris Pine, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hardy

The problem is not the cast, exactly. In the office, Hardy's nattering put-down rapport with Pine almost works, and Witherspoon remains one of our most game, least vain comediennes. The premise—two men abusing their access to billions of dollars' worth of spy tech to pursue a woman—is novel and even promising as a satire of dating in the online intel era, with FDR and Tuck adapting their approaches to Lauren based on what they overhear during surveillance of Lauren's girl-talk sessions with pal Chelsea Handler. But aside from the high-concept novelty, This Means War prefers to keep things as familiar as possible. By the time the line "Was this some kind of bet?" arrives, it's clear that this is timetable script writing, with confrontation coming right on schedule.

The film's temperamentally shallow director, McG, deals strictly in readymades. McG, who began as a director of some of the most loathsome music videos of the 1990s (Sugar Ray, Smash Mouth, "Pretty Fly [for a White Guy]"—the sort of stuff that calls for a VIP circle in hell), uses music like speed, a quick bump to give a scene energy (like the sequence in Lauren's apartment in which FDR and Tuck slink around planting bugs just out of her sight, as she obliviously bops to Montell Jordan's "This Is How We Do It"). His directorial M.O. has never evolved past trying to make every scene "pop"; consequently, he's much more comfortable crosscutting between control-room antics and date nights than digging into the intimate moments. But such constant, coercive insistence on what a rollicking good time we're having is inevitably smothering, and by the time an extended epilogue brings back the characters for a curtain call, it only works as a chance for a head start to the parking lot.

By the law of romantic comedies, FDR is ripe for comeuppance for assuming he can put the same lines over on every girl—but This Means War assumes the same: an audience that will always react to the same button-pushing emotional and musical cues, like Pavlov's dogs. This arrogance is the difference between crowd-pleasing and pandering.

 
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